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Quirk of history

Hunting the Brighton bomber

The Grand Hotel after the explosion. John Minihan/Express/Getty

On 15 September 1984, says The Economist, a smartly dressed young man “carrying an unusually heavy suitcase” entered the Grand Hotel in Brighton and asked for an upper-floor room with a sea view. The receptionist gave him the keys to 629, which, “by a stroke of luck”, was one of the rooms that best suited his plan: to hide a bomb that would detonate 27 days later, wiping out Margaret Thatcher and much of her cabinet. The IRA’s assassination attempt “almost worked perfectly”. It killed five people and injured 34. But the PM herself survived with “barely a scratch” – and “insisted on giving her party conference speech, as intended, later in the day”.

As Rory Carroll recounts in his “bleakly thrilling” new book, says Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, the police hunted for the bomber in vain for months. But in January 1985, an “observant detective” spotted a match between a fragment of a fingerprint on the room occupant’s hotel card and a set taken in Norwich in 1967, belonging to one Patrick Magee. By this point, Magee was back in Ireland, “beyond the reach of justice”. But the police somehow kept news of their discovery secret. Several months later, “The Chancer”, as they dubbed Magee, travelled to London to plant another bomb – in the Rubens hotel, beside Buckingham Palace’s mews – then headed north. After a “long surveillance operation”, the police arrested Magee in Glasgow and were able to disarm the Rubens bomb. At a moment when the Met’s reputation is at its “lowest ebb”, it is rather cheering to read of such “brilliant detective work”.

Killing Thatcher by Rory Carroll is available here.